A glass of tap water in Flint, MI or Camden, NJ, can you tell the difference? (Glenn Townes photo)

Don’t drink the water was and still is a mantra of sorts in Flint, Michigan. Now the unwelcome chant is trickling to New Jersey, as the state’s largest drinking water supplier—New Jersey American Water Co. discovered dangerous levels of a toxin in drinking water that serves thousands of customers, according to recently published reports.

Dangerous levels of a chemical called 1-4-Dioxane were discovered in a section of the Delaware River that is processed at New Jersey American Water Co’s., a major treatment plant located in South Jersey, according to a report released late last year and published reports. A carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer and other severe and potentially fatal health issues—New Jersey American Water Co. services thousands of New Jersey residents. The high levels of 1-4-Dioxane were discovered in 2020. However, the findings were not reported publicly revealed until recently. The results raised the issues of how and why an unsafe chemical ended up in a critical water supply source and why there was a substantial delay in reporting the findings. 

Similarly, in 2014, an emergency water crisis in Flint revealed a deteriorating infrastructure, budget cuts, illicit activities among government officials, and systemic racism branded the city as the poster child for a city that systematically poisoned its residents through drinking water. Dozens of people died, and thousands became gravely ill in the predominantly minority and economically impoverished city of about 100,000. Thousands of pipes that allowed dangerous and toxic levels of lead into the drinking water were eventually replaced, and at least a dozen politicos and others were indicted on federal and state charges. Additionally, the courts awarded residents and victims millions of dollars in damages resulting from the water scandal.

New Jersey has been at the forefront of violating state or federal rules and regulations regarding drinking water before. For example, in May 2017, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC)–a New York-based think tank and environmental advocacy group ranked the Garden State as the 4th worst state in the country for drinking water violations. The report sharply criticized environmental agents as ineffective and inefficient in monitoring deadlines and specific health violations related to unsafe drinking water. At the time, state officials dismissed or minimized the report, citing New Jersey’s poor ranking was due to missed watering deadlines. However, the most recent violation and discovery of 1,4-Dioxane at abnormal levels in drinking water in the state is a further example of a flawed system of checks and balances when it comes to monitoring the Garden States drinking water, according to some environmentalists.

“Many of the things that facilitated the water crisis in Flint could easily happen in New Jersey and may already be happening here,” said Rafiq Heigler, president of Sure-BioChem Laboratories (SBL), in

Camden, NJ. The company is the only African-American-owned biochemical company in South Jersey specializing in microbiology and chemistry analysis. It is one of only a handful of certified minority and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBE biochemical companies in the state. Heigler said the only positive thing to come out of the Flint water crisis is the ongoing need for a consistent and accurate analysis of the nation’s water system.

Lastly, current legislation under Gov. Phil Murphy proposes new rules that would limit the number of specific chemicals allowed in drinking water. For example, in 2016, the federal government requested that water suppliers conduct extensive testing to determine the levels of various chemicals in drinking water. In New Jersey, 1,4 Dioxane was discovered in more than two dozen major drinking water systems and initiated a re-examination of mandates regarding water production and distribution monitoring across the state. Heigler of SBL said, “Biochemical companies such as ours work to ensure that there are no prolonged exposures to dangerous or toxic contaminants in the water or environment and keep communities safe.”

New Jersey News Managing Editor Glenn Townes was awarded a national reporting fellowship in 2017 from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources to write about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

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